Saturday 31 May 2014

Back in Sussex

Just a gentle stroll on the Sussex Downs, Liz had remarked that there are no mountains in Sussex, but Heyshott Escarpment is a bit like mountain goat country but doesn't come close to the Cairngorms. The weather remained overcast so I reasoned that today would be a good day to capture some species that don't move round much. There had been a posting that Fly Orchids and White Helleborines were blooming on Heyshott, unfortunately the posting was nearly two weeks old and I wasn't sure what I might find.

I parked in the South Downs Way car park and followed the SDW to the top of Heyshott in the company of two walkers who were heading for Amberley, parting company at the OS trig point. The path down into the escarpment is pretty steep but as I crawled down I noticed  Common Spotted Orchids and Common Twayblade, both living up to their names as they really are plentiful here.

Finally I found both the White Helleborine and a single specimen of Fly Orchid, obviously past their sell by dates - but duly recorded.

By now the temperature was on the up and several butterflies were on the move, Small Heath being the most obvious, several Common Blues, Dingy and Grizzled Skipper, and a pair of newly emerged Speckled Woods, one of which posed for me. Green Hairstreaks are still about, quite a long season for them as I photographed my first of the year on April 13th.

Lots of Six Spot Burnet moths emerging and taking to the air, with a rather odd looking mode of flight, accompanied by a host of unusual beetles which I have not noted before. Post walk analysis reveals that they are Garden Chafers. very common, I wonder why I haven't recorded them previously.

Very friendly Garden Chafers

Finally I noted that Neil's snake is still in the same place.

Friday 23 May 2014

Nethy Bridge

This post is for Lindy who is my eighth reader, I hope she enjoys it. We met John and Lindy, a really nice couple, at the Mountview Hotel in Nethy Bridge. An excellent birding organisation with some great guides is based here and in the evenings the drawing room is populated with some serious avian observers. Probably the last thing a mini bus full of birders needs is a photographer saying "hang on I haven't got a shot yet" as they are keen to get the next species in the scope. So Liz and I took advantage of the self-catering bungalow situated at the rear of the hotel, this allowed us to do as we pleased at a fairly leisurely pace.

There are walks above and below the village bridge that track the river as far down as Broomhill Bridge. That there are Dippers here is well known and as my readers know it is a bit of a bogey bird for me - one I can never get close to. So we set off one morning to see what we could find, sure enough Dippers were present and as usual scarpered as soon as I showed my lens to them. Though I did manage to capture a record of some sort through the trees, we sat and waited in cover but of course they failed to return. We were delighted to discover a family of Grey Wagtails further downstream, again the light under the trees was abysmal so we drew stumps and decided to return at a later date.

Sure enough on our return, two days later- no Dippers and even worse the Grey Wagtails had moved. Then a pair of Common Sandpipers arrived on the scene and started what I thought was display prior to mating - how wrong can you be. We were enthralled by the wing flapping and loud calling, then from out of the rocky depths of the river bank a juvenile emerged. Doh! - all this cacophony was designed to warn us off, so we hastily withdrew - no Grey Wagtail shots then.


The walk above the bridge was more rewarding, a Grey Wagtail posed perfectly for me, just right to be on a stone in the middle of the river, I'm not really sure about the one on the branch. Chatting to a local resulted in advice to venture much further upstream where "Dippers abound". So it was camera and tripod over the shoulder and a long march upstream. Finally, on the far bank we found a lone Dipper, it remained motionless for the ten minutes we were watching it, the white eyelid that is seen when they blink the only indication that it was alive.  Then another, mid stream, perched on a rock and to top it all the sun came out. Click, click. click and I was happy.


After this we took the car down to Broomhill Bridge to watch the myriad of Sand Martins feeding above the river, darting between the trestles of the wooden structure on a feeding frenzy, the River Spey is certainly very rich in insect life. Having had a picnic lunch and a brew I decide to lug the camera down the river bank to capture some records of the nesting site in the mud cliffs. About 50 yards down I realised that I had made another error, a male Oystercatcher proceeded to scold me loudly and did his best to poo all over me. Sure enough, a close examination of the gravel island revealed a family of Oystercatchers waiting to be fed. Yet again a strategic withdrawal, perhaps some long distance shots of the colony would suffice. As I got back to the car the male was back in the field, catching earthworms and any available creepy crawlies I guess. Peace was restored.

Across the river is the old Broomhill station, or Glenbogle as it was called in "Monarch of the Glen". We had heard the whistle of a steam locomotive, time to investigate. When I was here in February I had photographed the weekend diesel railcar which runs between Aviemore and Broomhill - well you can't get the old steamers wet can you?  These photographs suffered the disdain of Kevin, a work chum of old, so I promised him shots of a proper choo choo. In the station a bright blue engine of the Strathspey Steam Railway and an ideal opportunity to get  some photographs from a nearby bridge.

Modern instrumentation.

Nostalgia is a wonderful thing, as the puffing locomotive went through the bridge I was enveloped in a cloud of the most wonderful perfume known to man - coal smoke and steam mixed in quantities that whisk you right back to a 1950s childhood. A smell that is on a par with new mown grass and fresh baked bread. What a shame that modern cameras in capturing the scene cannot record the smells too. On reflection perhaps not, both Bempton and the Farnes had a strong aroma of rotting fish, a reminder of the fish quay in Grimsby on a hot Sunday afternoon in July.  For enlightenment, Grimsby trawlers would not "land" their catch at the weekend, no demand for fish on a Monday. In those days whatever was Sunday dinner provided the basis for the family meal on Monday - oh happy days! Thus a location that was usually covered in water and ice was allowed to dry out and any fish remains would create the pong that would reside in the nose forever.

And that was it - another holiday over - without undue effort we recorded some 116 species, giving 13 year ticks and some reasonable photographs, in what, for the most of the time, were difficult conditions. To cap it all whilst I was away my birding colleague has concentrated even harder on butterflies and I am now way behind.

Tuesday 20 May 2014

Handa Island - Home of the Skuas

Handa Island, another birding site that was high on my list of places to visit. So with the weather forecast predicting the best day of my stay in Scotland, I eschewed the Chequered Skipper and set off north. As I left Nethy Bridge at 0530, travelling towards Inverness on the A9, the mountains were a picture, sun beaming down in a clear blue sky highlighting the remaining snow patches on the tops. Ha! As I reached the Slochd summit a dense fog closed in and was to remain with me as far as the outskirts of Ullapool. Luckily, in front of me, a white van driver who obviously knew the road, thanks mate you saved me at least an hour.

Beyond Ullapool the fog slowly dissipated and the sun returned. I thought the scenery of the Applecross peninsular was outstanding but the drive from Ullapool to Scourie is through a landscape that is simply stunning. With time in hand and no traffic on the road I was free to do some birding on the move and had great views of Golden Eagle, Buzzard and at long last an Osprey. Most lochs or lochans had a resident diver, usually of the Black-throated variety, all in summer plumage.

I eventually arrived at Tarbet for the ferry to Handa and surprisingly wasn't the first there. The first boat is around 0900 "ish" so I set up the scope and scanned the coastline. First up a pair of Red-throated Divers, loafing just at the end of the jetty, on seeing me they slowly drifted further out. A fly by of a Black Guillemot, great to add a "Tystie" to the year list and finally three Bonxies overhead. By the time the ferryman arrived there was a bit of a queue but we all made it across for some great views of the whole range of seabirds. As I had visited both Bempton and The Farnes I decided to concentrate my efforts on the Skuas. Unfortunately I had timed my visit a tad early as the birds had not yet got down to setting up their nesting territories, therefore no spectacular scrapping to be seen.

The first encounter was with a Bonxie that almost appeared to be standing guard on a rock that overlooks the path, probably dismayed by another stream of old birders puffing their way up the hill.

As I made my way past the abandoned village several pairs of Bonxies or Great Skuas were beginning the pairing rituals.

Just before I made the cliffs I found a dark form Arctic Skua willing to pose for the camera. These birds have declined drastically on Handa, I noted 7 during the day, most flying, five dark and two light form. Such a shame as they are really handsome birds.


Finally I made it to Puffin Bay and set up shop on the cliff edge, the Bonxies appeared to have a routine of bathing in Swaabie Loch, feeding along the cliffs and returning to rest above the loch. I noted their path over the cliffs and spent a couple of hours trying to capture these aerial brutes in flight. Thankfully there was plenty of sunlight and shutter speed wasn't a problem.


I didn't totally ignore the other birds, as I sat on my clifftop perch Fulmars were constantly swooping just a couple of feet above my head. Flight shots proved difficult so I found an obliging bird on the nest instead.

Thursday 15 May 2014

The Farnes - Inner Farne

Inner Farne is Tern Central, hundreds if not thousands of Arctic Terns all involved in frenetic pairing activity. Just a few weeks from now walking up the path from the quay will be fraught with danger, wearing a hat will be essential and even that may not be enough to protect you from a severe pecking. However, today it was all about giving the loved one a nice fish, or in some cases, peddling a fish around the tern bazaars to try and tempt any mate who might be interested. There are also both Common Terns and Sandwich Terns present in much smaller numbers.



 Eider Ducks also nest here, most of them close to the footpath but not necessarily in plain view. The females are superbly camouflaged and blend into the surrounding vegetation. The males just loaf around on the rocks - well they have earned a rest considering all the hard work they have put into breeding.

The usual suspects are present in smaller numbers than on Staple, Puffin, Razorbill and Guillemot are nesting. Even several Black-headed Gulls have managed to nest in what is tern chaos.